By: Don Masse.
Last spring I introduced my 3rd graders to the work of Santos. I used his work as inspiration for a project that focused on abstraction, meaning in art, and watercolor techniques.
I’m drawn to the flow and rhythm of the line work of Santos. The openness of his shapes and forms makes repeated viewing a treat, as new elements can stand out each time. That’s one of the cool things about abstractionist work is that another person may see other things or connections in it, and this is one of the big ideas I try to get across to my students. Abstract art lends itself to multiple interpretations depending on your personal experiences. All of those reads are valid as long as you support them with evidence.
We looked at a series of paintings entitled “Alfabetismo”. This is a series of paintings of camouflaged letters from the alphabet. Santos did this collection of work because he feels that a strong education is one of the most important elements necessary for the success of a child.
My 3rd graders created abstractions inspired by this series. However, they selected a whole word that was important to the success of a child. The kids went through a brainstorming process, multiple sketches, reflection on word choice and composition, final project design, and finally, a share out with a partner about their project. There was a lot of variety in the words students chose and the reasoning for those choices.
Just before the school year I visited Santos’ gallery for the first time. It was great to see his work in person and to see examples of variety in approach and materials up close. Santos happened to be in the gallery when I arrived. He came out to see if I had any questions and I told him about this project and gave him some background on our school. Within minutes he asked me if we had a wall that we would like to have painted. He was willing to donate his time, materials, and creative energy in order to enliven our school campus. Once I got back home, I immediately reached out to our principal, Derek Murchison about the possibility of Santos coming to Zamorano Fine Arts Academy and doing a mural. He was positively on board with the project and when I shared news with our staff, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
5 weeks after first meeting at his gallery, Santos was on a wall 12′ high x 130’ long and that serves as the backdrop for our regular school wide openings at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy. A small team of 5th graders- model citizens and artists, helped him paint the background of the mural. Classes toured the mural, watched Santos work, and interacted with him in Q & A sessions. I loved listening in on these sessions. He was so patient and genuine with our students. He offered them insight on the art making process, his inspirations, and his personal journey. Teachers brought their classes out, some multiple times, to quietly watch as he worked. This is such a rare experience for anyone… to be present during the creative process of a visual artist. You do not get to witness this aspect of visual art on a regular basis. When we go to see live music or theater to see a play you do, but with visual art, the creative process is usually done behind closed doors. When you go to a museum or gallery, you view the completed work. This first hand experience is what made this whole thing so wonderful. I emphasized this with students all throughout the time Santos was working.
Santos worked during our school day, including morning and lunch recesses and as he did so, incorporated elements that he heard around him during those times. The sounds of kids playing at recess, conversations going on behind him, horns and violins wafting over from our band rooms- they all impacted decisions that he made spontaneously, in the moment, as he added more and more lines to the wall.
That same week, I did a project inspired by his work and I was able to bring those classes out, so they could see the concepts and skills we were practicing, being used by a professional artist to create a work of art. It made the learning so much more real and concrete. When we came back in to the classroom, everyone knew how to create bold lines in their drawings because we got to see Santos do it in person!
The 5th grade assistants came back while Santos was working and, with me, created a small piece of art using some of the same techniques that Santos uses to create his murals- rolling house paint, applying different textures, and spray painting lines on top of their color fields. They did the spray painting outside in front of the mural as Santos was finishing his line work. They all discovered that making sharp lines with spray paint was way harder than they thought it would be. They were able to share these works with Santos first hand, and he graciously offered them words of praise and encouragement.
Santos once more took time out of his schedule to visit with our Zamorano community a final time. On this occasion, it was the first school wide opening since the completion of the mural. It was a chance for us, as a school, to say thank you for everything that he had donated to us in order to make this happen.
Now, since the wall has been transformed, I watch at recess as kids walk along the wall and trace the lines with their fingers. I see how the dance of lines reflects the energy that happens on the blacktop throughout the day. I listen to students as they talk about the different things they see in the composition.
I am so thankful that Santos took the time to add more life and color to our campus. I am thankful that our administration, especially principal Derek Murchison, saw the value of a project like this at Zamorano Fine Arts Academy. I feel truly fortunate that we our a school community that sees the value of arts education and that also sees the impact it has on our students’ lives. I feel blessed to have had a small role in all of this coming together for our community.